By Steven Chase, Senior Parliamentary Reporter
Robert Fife, Ottawa Bureau Chief
November 23, 2022 Update
Cargo containers are moved by trucks at the Port of Vancouver Centerm container terminal as others are stacked under gantry cranes, in Vancouver, on Oct. 14.
DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Members of Parliament were warned Monday that a Senate bill that would require companies and government bodies to report publicly on forced labour in their supply chains would do little to tackle the problem.
And the National Council of Canadian Muslims urged MPs to amend the legislation, Bill S-211, so that it bars all imports from China’s western Xinjiang region, on the presumption that any goods from there are made with slave labour – as the United States has done. Xinjiang is where Chinese authorities have established mass detention camps and forced Uyghurs and members of other Muslim groups to work in factories and on farms.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s governing Liberals have thrown their support behind S-211. The legislation stands a good chance of becoming law.
Its short title is the Fighting Against Forced Labour and Child Labour in Supply Chains Act. It would require government institutions and businesses to submit annual reports to Ottawa outlining any steps taken during the previous fiscal year to prevent forced labour or child labour from being used in their supply chains.
The legislation, which has already passed the Senate, also passed second reading in the Commons in June. It’s now being studied by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
Emily Dwyer, policy director at the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability, warned MPs on Monday that the bill, as written, would be ineffective.
“Simply put, a law that requires you to report but does not require you to stop the harm you are causing may be easy to pass with all-party support, but it is also meaningless,” Ms. Dwyer told the Foreign Affairs Committee. Her organization represents a network of 40 environmental, human rights, religious and labour groups across the country.
“What is needed is a law that goes beyond a basic reporting requirement.”
Stephen Brown, chief executive of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, told the committee his group supports the bill, and wants it passed as soon as possible. But he noted how unsuccessful Canada has been at stopping imports of goods made with forced labour.
He urged MPs to adopt what’s called a “presumptive ban” on any goods originating in Xinjiang. Such a measure would bar imports from the region unless the importers could prove the items were not made with forced labour.
“We are begging you, as parliamentarians, to ensure that we take this opportunity of legislation that has strong bipartisan support and make sure we give it enough teeth to make sure that Uyghur human hair does not end up in Canadian pillows,” he said.
Xinjiang produces a fifth of the world’s cotton and close to half of the global supply of the silicon material used to make solar panels.
The Globe and Mail has reported that Canada has not stopped a single shipment of goods made with forced labour since mid-2020, when Ottawa amended the Customs Tariff Act to prohibit those imports. The ban was imposed in keeping with a pledge made under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the trade deal that replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement.
In the 2021 fiscal year alone, the United States intercepted more than 1,400 shipments of goods made with forced labour from a variety of countries, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The Global Slavery Index, produced by the Australian philanthropic foundation Walk Free, estimated in a 2018 report that more than $18.5-billion worth of goods imported annually into Canada are at risk of being made with forced labour at some point in their supply chains, including computers, smartphones, clothing, gold, seafood and sugar cane.
Ms. Dwyer told MPs that S-211 as currently drafted “does not require companies to take any steps to identify whether slave labour is in their supply chains.” Nor, she said, does it require company directors to certify that their supply chains are free of forced labour.
“This means that a company could comply with bill S-211 by taking no steps, or by taking patently inadequate steps, remaining willfully blind and continuing business as usual.”
She said a five-year review of a similar forced-labour registry in Britain “revealed no significant improvements in companies’ policies or practice” and found the mechanism had “failed to be an effective driver of corporate action to end forced labour.”
The Canada Border Services Agency has said it is difficult to identify goods made with forced labour. “Unlike most other inadmissible products, there is no visual clue for a border services officer to understand the labour standards by which a particular import was produced,” CBSA spokesperson Rebecca Purdy told The Globe last year.
Mr. Brown told MPs that this shouldn’t be the case. “The CBSA should not have this level of difficulty in turning back shipments from East Turkestan,” he said, using a name for the Xinjiang region often preferred by Uyghurs and others.
On Feb. 22, 2021, the House of Commons voted 266-0 to adopt a motion that said China is committing genocide against Uyghurs, who primarily live in Xinjiang, and other Turkic minorities. Rights organizations and media reports say the Chinese government has committed grave human-rights violations against those groups.